We are sitting at the large dining table in the Leadville hostel on the eve of the Silver Rush 50 Mtn Bike Race. Salad, pasta, and heavily buttered french bread are on the menu, on our plates, and quickly filling our guts. The group includes riders, runners, hikers, and hosts.
Based on her comments, I guess that the elderly lady seated next to me is a hiker who is likely on break from the Colorado Trail, which passes close to Leadville as it meanders 485 miles through the Rockies between Denver and Durango.
"So, are you hiking the whole Colorado Trail?"
"Yes, the two of us." She nods to a man on the other side of the table.
"How long have you been on the trail?"
"We're fifteen days out of Denver." The man nods in agreement.
"Are you having a good hike?"
"Yeah, because we're taking our time, not rushing through it."
There is a brief chewing pause. She takes in another fork full of spaghetti while I take in the tone of the words she seems to spit out while casting a disapproving look around the table.
"Have you hiked the AT?
"And the PCT."
"Awesome. I hope to hike the AT someday."
"Don't wait too long, because the day you're waiting for just might come after you die."
"That's great advice, but I teach and I only have the ten weeks of summer free. I've thought about attempting to do it in seventy days."
"Why on Earth would you do that? Just section hike it or, better yet, break it in half - one half each summer."
"That thought has crossed my mind, but it seems to disagree with the spirit of adventure and self-discovery that I would expect from an AT thru-hike."
"Whatever you do, don't rush it. There just isn't any logic in that."
"What if a faster pace is acceptable, comfortable, and more logical for me due to my fitness and time constraints?"
"Fast people get injured."
"So do slow people."
"Fast people can't enjoy the trail as much."
"Maybe going fast is what some people enjoy."
"It's just not right."
"So, you disapprove of what Jen Pharr Davis is doing right now?"
"She's attempting a speed record on the AT."
"Oh, her. NO! I don't even think she is hiking. She has a crew of people carrying everything for her and making her campsite each night."
"Well, what she is doing cannot be called backpacking, but she certainly is hiking. And she seems to be in really high spirits."
"Don't be fooled. She is suffering"
For those of you who don't know it, Pharr lowered her women's record (56 days) and the record set by a man (47d 13h) when she completed the 2181-mile AT in 46d 11h earlier this month. That is 47 miles per day for almost 46.5 days!
My dinner mate at the Pbville hostel may not approve of this, but I am in awe of the accomplishment. The most impressive aspect of Pharr's AT hike is how consistent she remained from start to finish despite inclement weather and variable but constantly challenging terrain. Well, she even had the energy to put in a "kick" by covering 60-miles on day 46.
Under some scrutiny, her performance can be compared to that of a miler who posts three 56-second splits before finishing in 55. Or, from another perspective, it could be compared to a miler who sets a PR by turning in three 91-second quarters before roaring home in 86 seconds. Both of these efforts result in life best performances, which puts them on par with Pharr's AT hike. The big difference is that two of those three efforts also happen to be world records.
My dinner mate, after a reflective pause, informs me that the AT wasn't created for racing. She is correct.
"True, but most people struggle every day on the AT. Finishing it is "winning."
"But they aren't racing."
"They are racing themselves. They are finding the limits of their own abilities and pushing back the boundaries."
The words of my hostel dinner mate remind me of the voices I hear each year while riding in a local bike tour. I always ride this event at a comfortable pace that allows me to talk to my friends. Still, these angry female voices scream at us to "SLOW DOWN - THIS IS NOT A RACE!" I laugh as I look at my HRM and, seeing that I am at 55-60%, believe that the heckler is actually the one going too close to the edge. She will likely be suffering much more than I at the end of the day.
There is a pause in my conversation with the hiker before I say, "Fast or slow, old or young, strong or weak, people tend to finish difficult challenges at the pace they are capable of."
I believe that. I also believe that those who attempt to go at a pace beyond what they are capable of will be among those most unlikely to finish. Furthermore, I believe that this concept of pacing transcends all facets of performance and, more importantly, the training that prepares us for the ultimate goal. That is the basis for the training method I employ. My programs rely on specificity of pace. That is why I am often heard saying pacework and seldom use the term speedwork.
Find your pace and settle into it.